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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,605


This is the grave of Albert Burleson.

Born in 1863 in San Marcos, Texas, Burleson grew up rich in the aftermath of the Civil War. His father had owned a big plantation with plenty of slaves and had been a Confederate officer. The family managed to keep its wealth even after losing its human capital. He went into the law and state politics, rising in the esteem of the state’s leading Democrats.

Burleson took on some of the ideas of the Populists. He was a free coinage of silver guy. But he also wanted significant agricultural reforms. He supported the graduated income tax, a major goal of reformers until it was enacted into the Constitution. He wanted corporate leaders who violated in antitrust law thrown in prison. He also wanted legislation stopping the use of injunctions against labor unions. Now, this was an exceedingly white kind of reformer. Like many southern reformers, from Populists and Progressives to the socialist movements in the rural South, this all would only apply to whites. Anything was fair game to Black people. So Burleson supported white supremacy in all its forms. He went to Congress in 1899 and wrote a lot of legislation around agricultural issues. He became close with Edward House and that would pay off for him big time. He also moved to the right over his seven terms in Congress, to the point that he would later be pretty soft on what he had once supported.

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won the election to the presidency. He was a mild Progressive and in creating a Cabinet, he looked for like-minded Democrats. Burleson represented an important state in Texas and so throwing a bone to Texas Democrats was a politically smart thing to do. Plus House liked him. He gave Burleson the job of Postmaster General. Generally, this was the least interesting of Cabinet positions and I rarely even bothering covering these people in the grave series. But Burleson, well, he’s an important exception and not for good reasons. By this time too, Wilson was a bit concerned that Burleson had become too conservative, which probably should have been a good sign not to bring him on board.

Now, Burleson was actually fairly capable as Postmaster General. It was under his leadership that air mail became a thing and he introduced the idea of the parcel post as well. He also improved rural service. But this is very much not why we remember him. Why we remember Burleson is that he was the most aggressive supporter of Wilson’s anti-radical measures in the Cabinet and really was a terrible person in enforcing the new laws around these issues.

First, Burleson was a big supporter of Wilson’s plans to segregate the government. Now, historians have demonstrated that the Republican Party had allowed that to happen in incremental ways since McKinley. Neither he, Roosevelt, or Taft cared about the Black federal workers in any meaningful way. So just blaming Wilson for segregating the federal government is both short-sighted and also lets all the other responsible parties off the hook. But that doesn’t mean Wilson doesn’t deserve his share of the blame. He absolutely sped the process up and a lot of this was Burleson. One area where Republican patronage of Black voters had manifested itself was positions in the Post Office. But Burleson hated Black people. So he gladly enforced new segregation of government facilities, especially in Washington, D.C. He also started firing Black postal workers in the South, believing that northern states can have Black federal workers if they wanted, but the lily-white South would not. Wilson was of course fine with all of this.

Then the U.S. entered World War I. Given that public support for this was pretty soft, the government engaged in unprecedented levels of propaganda to both gin up support and to demonize anyone seen as not as supporting the war effort, which was really a lot of different groups. Congress passed and Wilson signed the Espionage Act in 1917. This banned sending radical material in the mail if it opposed the war. Of course, many of the leading socialists and anarchists in the country used the mail for their popular newspapers, such as Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth and Max Eastman’s The Masses. Burleson was very excited to suppress these papers. He enjoined the Post Office to interpret all these laws quite broadly and used his powerful branch of the federal government to purge the nation of anything he did not personally find politically acceptable. Moreover, he was able to take over the nation’s telegraph and telephone services during the war too, giving him almost total control over American communications. Many newspapers, even not radical ones, were pretty disgusted by all of this. But what could they do, especially if they didn’t want to be banned themselves?

After the war, Wilson ordered Burleson to stop censoring the mail. Burleson just ignored the order. Wilson was off to Paris and Burleson wanted to keep his hand in the world of anti-radical activity. This was a gross violation of a presidential order, but without enforcement, this is partly on Wilson too. It wasn’t until the summer of 1919 that he started backing off. Moreover, the men Burleson had placed into positions actively resisted the Harding administration’s ending of the Red Scare, accusing the Republicans of violating their oath of office. Burleson’s wife actually wrote a novel in 1921 defending his action, a lightly fictionalized version of how she saw him, as a hero. Burleson really believed that the Post Office was a disciplined army of workers to do the president’s bidding and he empowered these workers to repress anything in the mail they wanted.

Interestingly, Burleson would go to be a strong opponent of the Ku Klux Klan back in Texas in the 20s. But his wartime record is probably the worst in all the government, outside of perhaps A. Mitchell Palmer as Attorney General. With the Republicans taking power back in 1921, Burleson was relieved of his duties in Washington and he went back to Texas as a member of the senior Democratic Party elite. He was a big backer of Al Smith for president in 1928 and again in 1932, though he also publicly supported FDR after Smith did not get the nomination. I am not sure how he felt about the New Deal, but I doubt it was very positive. Most of the Texas Democrats hated it, from VP John Nance Garner on down. He died of a heart attack in 1937. He was 74 years old.

Albert Burleson is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Austin, Texas.

If you would like this series to visit other members of the Wilson Cabinet, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert Lansing is in Watertown, New York and Newton Baker is in Cleveland. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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